Tradition means the “transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation.” The word tradition itself always makes me think of Tevye singing about it in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, as he proclaimed his way of life as he sought marriage matches for his daughters. Tradition! But there are many novels out there with passing down or passing on as a theme, where the shifting of generations becomes the center of how a person lives out their lives. I chose five books to best exemplify a storyline steeped in tradition, and all the struggles and triumph that accompany it. These stories come from around the world, from Japan, to Africa, to England, to America and Australia. Yet they all carry one common thread of tradition – human nature.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden was first published in 1997 and made into a movie in 2005. There is lots of drama, back-stabbing and wickedness in the story, but there is also love and beauty. The tradition of becoming a geisha is complicated, and Memoirs allows a look into the life of a young girl and her desire for better in a profession of little choice.
To me, the best of Barbara Kingsolver’s novels is The Poisonwood Bible. Kingsolver takes the idea of a missionary, a stranger in a strange land, and adds to it the dynamic of family. When the Price women follow their patriarch, Baptist missionary Nathan Price, into the wilds of the Belgian Congo, what becomes a quest of faith soon becomes an unraveling. But as each daughter and their mother comes to terms with her own path in life, we see a reconstruction of identity that is anything but the traditions they are used to.
Jane Austen is known for her writing on social structures of the British Regency, and she thoroughly tackles all the “scandalous” issues of conduct, upbringing, virtue, education and marriage in her well-loved novel, Pride and Prejudice. With something for everyone and comments on the behavior of English aristocrats and what is perceived as proper, Pride and Prejudice reads like a how-to of etiquette in genteel society – plus adds a healthy dose of wit and satire. Somehow these characteristics are still relevant in tradition today making Jane a woman of her time, both then and now.
Finally, my last two recommendations engage two sweeping family epics where we learn the fate of generations and how they continue on after upheaval, war and loss. These sagas are none other than Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell set in the Civil War era of the American South, and The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough that flings us from a sheep ranch in Australia to the papal court in Rome. Tradition is a thread these two novels follow, especially that of land, of ambition and of love – and all that other stuff that makes a really good story.
These recommendations are all available at the Library in book format, but you can also check out The Thorn Birds, Gone with the Wind, Pride and Prejudice and Memoirs of a Geisha in their film versions. And the last word on tradition? The Fiddler on the Roof is also available on DVD, so we’ll leave that to Tevye.